11 November 2014

Some time-saving tips for internet discussions

There are many catchphrases and slang words that one hears on the internet and in the wider use outside the internet.  Some of these slang words are creative and lead to improved communication. 

These words listed below are used by many to marginalize the concerns of other (even if that isn't the intention of all users of these terms).

Of course, there are times when a person quotes others using one of these marginalizing words to illustrate what another is saying and to respond to their arguments (I'm not criticizing that type of usage here).

Feminazi -- If you use the word "feminazi" as a dismissive way to label your opponents in a discussion about gender, sexism, and feminism, it's very reasonable to assume that you're not engaging in the argument as an honest debater.

Homosexual or Gay Agenda -- If you use the phrase "homosexual agenda" or "gay agenda" as a dismissive way to describe your opponent's views in a discussion about sexual orientation, it's very reasonable to assume that you're not engaging in the argument as an honest debater.

Social Justice Warrior or SJW -- If you use the phrase "social justice warrior"or "SJW" as a dismissive way to label your opponents in a discussion about oppression (including non-personal systemic oppression) and intersectionality, it's very reasonable to assume that you're not engaging in the argument as an honest debater.

The "tl;dr" version -- if you want your arguments taken seriously, don't use terms that your opponents view as name-calling. And now we can return to our interactions on the internet.

16 September 2014

James Barrett — Unitarian Universalist Reproductive Justice Activist

Note - this is the text for a short talk that I gave on 31 August 2014 as part of a worship service for All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Shreveport, Louisiana.  The podcast audio recording for this can be found here (my portion starts at the 9:10 mark).

Who has heard of Rev James Reeb?

He’s a famous Unitarian Universalist who made the ultimate sacrifice – giving his life supporting racial justice in 1965.

Now, who has heard of James Barrett, Lt Colonel (US Air Force – retired)?

Jim Barrett is less well-known but he could be considered our “James Reeb of reproductive justice.”

13 May 2014

A Response to "Public Education and Intelligent Design" (Part 1)

On 30 April 2014, Unitarian Universalist minister Rev. Dan Harper mentioned a paper by philosopher Thomas Nagel on his blog -- "A possible case for teaching intelligent design" is the title of the blog post and the Nagel's paper is "Public Education and Intelligent Design."

In the opening section of his paper, Thomas Nagel makes the following observation about the assumptions used in the sciences and how they may conflict with religious assumptions:
But the conflicts aired in this trial [Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District]—over the status of evolutionary theory, the arguments for intelligent design, and the nature of science—reveal an intellectually unhealthy situation. The political urge to defend science education against the threats of religious orthodoxy, understandable though it is, has resulted in a counterorthodoxy, supported by bad arguments, and a tendency to overstate the legitimate scientific claims of evolutionary theory. Skeptics about the theory are seen as so dangerous, and so disreputably motivated, that they must be denied any shred of legitimate interest. Most importantly, the campaign of the scientific establishment to rule out intelligent design as beyond discussion because it is not science results in the avoidance of significant questions about the relation between evolutionary theory and religious belief, questions that must be faced in order to understand the theory and evaluate the scientific evidence for it.
I'm not sure what Nagel means by a "counterorthodoxy" and "tendency to overstate the legitimate scientific claims of evolutionary theory."

Yes, it's true that many scientists are philosophical naturalists (who hold that only natural processes operate in the universe and there is no evidence for supernatural forces of any sort).

A commonly cited statistic is that 93% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences believe in a personal god (72.2% expressed disbelief and another 20.8% were agnostic concerning the existence of a personal god who answers prayer -- cited from Wikipedia).

But even scientists who hold supernatural beliefs (theism - a belief in a personal god) employ methodological naturalism when doing science even if they are not philosophical naturalists.

In writing the Kitzmiller decision, Judge Jones made the following comments about methodological naturalism and its role in the sciences:
"Expert testimony reveals that since the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, science has been limited to the search for natural causes to explain natural phenomena ... While supernatural explanations may be important and have merit, they are not part of science." Methodological naturalism is thus "a self-imposed convention of science." It is a "ground rule" that "requires scientists to seek explanations in the world around us based upon what we can observe, test, replicate, and verify." (cited from Wikipedia)
At first glance, this quote from the judge's decision appears to support Nagel's opening statement in his paper.

But that really isn't the case.

For almost 500 years, we have been successfully used methodological naturalism in our exploration of the world because it works.

It's not an a priori assumption.

It's an assumption with a proven track record -- a pragmatic assumption.

Greta Christina mentions this on her blog:
When you look at the history of what we know about the world, you see a very noticeable pattern. Natural explanations of things have been replacing supernatural explanations of them. Like a steamroller. 
Why the sun rises and sets. Where thunder and lightning come from. Why people get sick. Why people look like their parents. How the complexity of life came into being. I could go on and on. 
All of these things were once explained by religion. But as we understood the world better, and learned to observe it more carefully, the religious explanations were replaced by physical cause and effect. Consistently. Thoroughly. Like a steamroller. The number of times that a supernatural or religious explanation of a phenomenon has been replaced by a natural explanation? 
Thousands upon thousands upon thousands. 
Now. The number of times that a natural explanation of a phenomenon has been replaced by a supernatural or religious one? The number of times humankind has said, “We used to think (X) was caused by physical cause and effect, but now we understand that it’s actually caused by God, or spirits, or demons, or the soul”? 
Exactly zero.
Now ... there may be theological implications for some regarding methodological naturalism as it is currently used in the sciences.

And there may be theological implications in some conceptual frameworks currently used the sciences.

We now view lighting being caused by electrostatic discharge in clouds.  We don't consider Thor to be useful here.

We now view HIV and AIDS being caused by a virus.  We don't find the "AIDS is God's curse" to be useful.

Our understanding of natural selection and evolution is that both are "material processes, blind, mindless, and purposeless" -- a process that happens without forethought or goal.  Google "Luria–Delbrück experiment" -- we've known that this is a blind and purposeless process for many years.

But one might say this is not consistent with my theology.

The rejection of Thor causing lighting also clashes with some theological opinions.

The rejection of HIV/AIDS being a divine curse clashes with some theological opinions.

The rejection of intelligent design clashes with some theological opinions.

If we are being reasonable in the first two cases ignoring theological concerns (lighting, HIV/AIDS), we may be reasonable ignoring theology in the third case (evolution and natural selection).

03 April 2014

Conservatism Limiting the Growth of Atheism??

I have my doubts about small government libertarian conservative politics if we want to grow atheism and free-thought in the United States. Recently, the questions surrounding atheism and conservative politics came up in connection to American Atheists President David Silverman attending this years CPAC Conference ("David Silverman: CPAC is crawling with closet atheists").

I’ve read Phil Zuckerman’s Society Without God and I’m currently reading David Niose’s Nonbeliever Nation. Both books make a similar point about growing atheism and secularism in a democracy. Secular atheist-friendly societies appear arise naturally in situations where there is a strong social safety net. Niose (page 197) makes the following observation about this correlation in his book:
“As modern developed countries learn to educate, provide health care, and ensure the general welfare of a diverse population, there is less reliance on religious community and charity. This partly explains why conservative religion so often abhors the modern social welfare state, where the public sector fills many roles once served by religion. It’s little wonder that secularity is most prominent in the social democracies of Europe, where the notion of the public sector serving many essential community needs is widely accepted.”
For a small-government conservative or libertarian conservative atheist, this may seem frustrating. After all, conservative politics may have the unintended side-effect of keeping religion alive and limiting the growth of atheism.

[Cross-posted from philosophicalpenguins.wordpress.com]

25 September 2012

Online Academic Theological Library

Here's a a free online resource courtesy of the World Council of Churches and globethics.net:
Global Digital Library on Theology and Ecumenism
Online theological resources for education and ecumenical dialogue

The Global Digital Library on Theology and Ecumenism (GlobeTheoLib) is a multi-lingual global digital library on theology and ecumenism that offers access to more than 500,000 texts, documents and other academic resources.

09 February 2012

Why E. J. Dionne Is Wrong on Contraceptives and Health Care Reform

The Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne is frequently cited as a progressive Catholic who condemns the recent Obama Administration announcement to require all employers (except exclusively religious bodies) to offer contraceptive insurance coverage as part of comprehensive preventive care. Mr. Dionne has claimed this health care decision infringes on religious liberty.

I've already written about why this is a medically and scientifically smart decision.

But Mr. Dionne's thinking is inconsistent. I think this excerpt from "Balancing Faith and Contraceptives" by Scott Lemieux shows where Mr. Dionne's logic is faulty:
Elsewhere, Dionne effectively refutes his own argument by noting, "While the Catholic Church formally opposes contraception, this teaching is widely ignored by the faithful." For the same reasons Kevin Drum cites at Mother Jones, if opposition to contraception represented a widely practiced tenet of the Roman Catholic faith, I believe that the government's interest in securing gender equity with a reasonable, generally applicable law should prevail, but I can understand seeing this as a difficult question. But forgoing contraception is not central to the faith of most practicing Roman Catholics. There’s not a genuine clash between religious freedom and pressing government interests here; rather, a small minority of religious leaders are seeking a special exemption that burdens women in the name of principles the overwhelming majority of their followers reject. The Obama administration's balancing of the interests here was perfectly appropriate and is better than either alternative Dionne proposes.
In other words, it's not a matter of "religious freedom" for the Catholic Bishops to try and claim an authority over non-Catholic employees and a secular government that they no longer exercise over their own flock.

"Special Rights" for Religions When They Operate Secular Businesses? No!!

First, I will say that religious institutions (e.g. churches, mosques, synagogues, other places of worship, seminaries, etc) do have exemptions from the laws that secular non-profits don't have.

Religious organizations can discriminate on the basis of religion in hiring and firing. In areas where sexual orientation non-discrimination laws are present, religious organizations are exempt from following these laws as well. They can discriminate on the basis of gender in their hiring. In other words, they get to do a lot of things that would be illegal and wrong if a secular business were to do them.

But this exemption from secular law should not apply when a religious body operates a secular business like a hospital or a school.

These secular businesses employ members of all faith traditions and even those who are non-believers. The same is true for their clientele - they may belong to other faiths or have no faith at all.

Basically, we're talking about hospitals and colleges that have religious decorations on the walls and statues in the lobby. These trappings should not give a hospital or school "special rights" to ignore laws that secular non-profit and secular for-profit corporations must follow.

07 February 2012

Contraceptive Health Care and "Religious Freedom" Arguments ... Or Facts Trump Theology

The bulk of this article uses research compiled for an article published by the Guttmacher Institute ("The Case for Insurance Coverage of Contraceptive Services And Supplies Without Cost-Sharing").

The 2010 health care reform law ("Affordable Care Act" or ACA) requires private health insurance plans to cover certain preventive health care services without any out-of-pocket to the consumer (e.g. no co-pays, no deductibles).

In November 2010, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) convened an advisory panel to develop guidelines for women's preventive care (a requirement added to the law by Senator Mikulski of Maryland). The legislative intent of this law was to include contraceptive counseling, contraceptive services and supplies, and annual well-woman gynecological exams.

The evidence support contraceptive health care services as an essential component of both individual preventive care and public health care. The Guttmacher Institute's report provides an excellent summary of the importance of contraceptive coverage:
Contraceptive use helps women avoid unintended pregnancy and improve birthspacing, which in turn have substantial positive consequences for infants, women, families and society. Moreover, although cost can be a daunting barrier to effective contraceptive use on the part of individual women, the evidence strongly suggests that insurance coverage of contraceptive services and supplies without cost-sharing is a low-cost or even cost-saving means of helping women overcome this obstacle.
Here's a summary of the benefits provided by making contraceptive use easier for children, women, families, and society from the Guttmacher report:
  • In the United States, increased contraceptive use—particularly among unmarried women and among teenagers—has paralleled substantial declines in unintended pregnancy and abortion. Notably, increased contraceptive use has been found to be responsible for 77% of the sharp decline in pregnancy among 15–17-year-olds between 1995 and 2002, and for all the decline among 18–19-year-olds over that period.

  • According to U.S. and international studies, a causal link exists between the interpregnancy interval (the time between a birth and a subsequent pregnancy) and three major birth outcomes measures: low birth weight, preterm birth and small size for gestational age.

  • In addition, according to a 2008 literature review, numerous U.S. and European studies have found an association between pregnancy intention and delayed initiation of prenatal care.

  • Furthermore, compared with children born from intended pregnancies, those born from unintended pregnancies are less likely to be breastfed at all or for a long duration. Breastfeeding, in turn, has been linked with numerous positive outcomes throughout a child’s life.

  • Moreover, although evidence is limited, several studies from the United States, Europe and Japan suggest an association between unintended pregnancy and subsequent child abuse. There is also some evidence of an association between unintended pregnancy and maternal depression and anxiety.

  • Both married and cohabiting couples are more likely to separate after an unintended first birth than after an intended first birth.

  • Moreover, compared with those who have had a planned birth, women and men who have had an unplanned birth report less happiness and more conflict in their relationship, and women report having more symptoms of depression.

  • Several studies have examined the role that contraceptive use—particularly the use of oral contraceptives—has played in improvements in social and economic conditions for women. The advent of the pill allowed women greater freedom in career decisions, by allowing them to invest in higher education and a career with far less risk of an unplanned pregnancy.

  • Several studies have found that legal access to the pill led to increased pill use, fewer first births to high school– and college-aged women, increased age at first marriage, increased participation by women in the workforce and more children born to mothers who were married, college-educated and had pursued a professional career.

  • A 2010 analysis of the literature found that hormonal contraceptives can help address several menstrual disorders, including dysmenorrhea (severe menstrual pain) and menorrhagia (excessive menstrual bleeding). Hormonal contraceptives can also prevent menstrual migraines, treat pelvic pain due to endometriosis and treat bleeding due to uterine fibroids. Perhaps most notably, oral contraceptives have been shown to have long-term benefits in reducing a woman’s risk of developing endometrial and ovarian cancer, and short-term benefits in protecting against colorectal cancer.

  • Moreover, a 2000 study by the National Business Group on Health, a membership group for large employers to address their health policy concerns, estimated that it costs employers 15–17% more to not provide contraceptive coverage in their health plans than to provide such coverage, after accounting for both the direct medical costs of pregnancy and indirect costs such as employee absence and reduced productivity.
So ... we have facts supporting the case for contraceptive preventive care improves the situations of women, children, families, and society.

All I can find on the US Conference of Catholic Bishops web site about this law is that they object to it and that they are wrapping their objections in "religious privilege" that they want to extend to their non-profit organizations that provide secular services (e.g. education, health care, etc). If there are any factual objections to providing contraceptive care, it would be in their interests to voice them.

All that tells me is that these clergy leaders value their theology more than they value the well-being of children, women, families, and society (I'm assuming that these leaders are educated men who have ready access to the same facts that I have presented here).

They are free to promote this unhealthy idolatry of theology in their churches.

But this freedom doesn't extend to the secular world where their non-profit organizations employ non-Catholics who are engaged in non-religious work (health care, education, social services, etc). Theology doesn't exempt religiously-affiliated non-profits from religiously neutral laws that promote the common good.

We are lucky that these attitudes against contraceptives are not shared by a majority of Catholic laity.

Most Catholic laypersons support contraceptive use and a majority does support providing contraceptives as part of the ACA:
A new poll is out from Public Policy Polling, conducted on behalf of Planned Parenthood, on voter attitudes toward the new Obama administration requirement that employers who provide health insurance must also cover, co-pay-free, prescription birth control.

The PPP poll finds that "a 53 percent majority of Catholic voters, who were oversampled as part of this poll, favor the benefit, including fully 62 percent of Catholics who identify themselves as independents."

The poll also found 57% of all voters (and a 53% majority of Catholics) "think that women employed by Catholic hospitals and universities should have the same rights to contraceptive coverage as other women."